How Parties Die

Watching Labour MPs queuing up to praise David Cameron, and walking out on their own party leader is uncomfortable, but somehow unsurprising.  It is part of the problem that’s been troubling me for some time – why do Members of Parliament hate their own party members?

For this is not a phenomenon confined to Labour.  Tory leaders have long despised their members; so much so that they have a party constitution designed to minimise the influence of members over most things, especially policy.

But in the case of the Tory Party that makes sense.  They didn’t begin as a mass membership party, but as a Parliamentary clique.  They acquired a membership when the franchise widened, democracy requiring foot soldiers on the ground to fight elections.

Labour was a party created by the trades union movement to campaign for working class representation in the political system.  It was, by definition, a mass party.

And it’s a mass party again.  I even considered rejoining again myself. Except that there’s a little problem. Labour MPs.

Most Labour MPs, wherever they are on the political spectrum, are probably good people who care about their constituents and want what’s best for the people they represent.  That’s not the problem.  The problem is much more profound than simply the quality or ideological orientation of Labour MPs.  Nor the quality and ideological orientation of the new leadership.

The problem was summed up well by the Spanish journalist Pedro J Ramirez.  He was talking about Spain after Franco, and how key Spanish institutions worked together to ensure stability and provide space for democracy to take root, but his central insight can be applied to Britain, too.  He said that “…with the passing of time, democracy became a particracy – or a concentration of power within the hands of those at the top.”

In other words, most people have been penned away from power.  Trades unions have grower weaker, beset by restrictions on what they can do, and how they do it.  Successful pressure groups tend to be corporate lobbyists for narrow interests, not mass membership organisations.  Local government – where small neighbourhoods elect one of their own to run the services closest to local needs – is dying, starved of resources and autonomy.  And the parties themselves are essentially a combination of corporate PR and management consultancies in which only career politicians, talent spotted as youths and groomed to fit the brand image, can be taken seriously.  The rest of us are mere polling station fodder.

Indeed, it’s worse than that.  Changes in both voter registration and in housing tenure mean than there is fast becoming a Victorian-style ‘property qualification’ for voters.

Professional, career politicians like this system.  I don’t blame them. Iron Law of Oligarchy, and all that. No wonder they hate Corbyn for spoiling everything.  It’s as though the lowliest office junior at Labco PLC has suddenly and unfairly been given the chief executive’s job.  It’s galling.

Because, let’s face it, Corbyn is deeply unsuited to the way politics is now done.  When he was first elected someone quipped that it’s a pity he’s not 35 and female.  He doesn’t like the cameras, he’s not a natural orator, he is exasperated with the tactical agility needed in Westminster.  His colleagues would rather throw away the next election than try to help him out with a job with which he struggles.  One senses that there are plenty of formerly senior Labour figures looking longingly at the Tory benches, not because they are Tories, but because they envy the slick leadership of idle Dave and hyperactive Gideon.  They want some of that.

What they don’t want is us.  The bloody public, whining, and bleating.  We saw it on all sides during the general election campaign.  The politicians are frightened of the public.  And they are frightened of their own members.

I don’t buy all the crap about 80s-style entryists, and Trots, and deselection campaigns. There might be some of those amongst Labour’s new members, but I doubt there are many.  Some I’ve talked to are much like me.  I was in Labour in the 1980s.  I was, indeed, a ‘moderniser’ when Anthony Blair was an anonymous new back bencher.  My constituency was sociologically much like the New Labour electoral pitch, all John Lewis sofas and National Trust memberships. I fitted in well.  I left the party when I moved to a new area and found myself with an MP who was of the Old Labour right, locked in a macho battle with equally macho Trots.  It was horrible. Those of us who lost faith in Labour during the New L:about era are not  ‘hard left’ ideologues, so much as socially concerned people who think that politics is about more than winning elections in order to provide a career structure for people who despise us.

So is Labour dying?  With all those new, young, energetic and idealistic members?  Surely not?

Alas, I think probably it is dying.  For the entire political system is rotten.  The electoral system, the party system, the monstrous British press, all unfit for purpose – if that purpose is democracy.

The Tories don’t need roots, because they have money.  Who needs members when you have The Sun and The Mail?  Big business, especially finance, can keep the Tories in cash out of the small change of their bonuses.

Labour MPs need to look all this in the eye.  What Corbyn’s victory represented was a revolt against particracy.  It was a cry for root and branch change.  It was a desire for clean politics, done in the open.

Unless Labour recognises this, and starts to demand real constitutional change, serious devolution to the regions, decentralisation, a moral renewal of the public service ethic, and an end to the ‘free for (not) all” system of unfair political funding, the party will die, and it will deserve to die.

But spare a thought for those who will suffer if there is a vacuum in the place where a party of the left should be.


2 thoughts on “How Parties Die

  1. Good stuff! I’ve thought for some while now that we have a malfunctioning economy and a malfunctioning democracy, but that none of the powers that be, Left or Right, will allow this to be discussed. So whilst the two dominant features of our society are in need of radical reform, all we can talk about are reforms of state agencies – education, police, health, etc. It’s very hard to persuade the beneficiaries of a system to see the need for fundamental change.

  2. And it’s very hard to ensure that those who lose to see it as a systemic, rather than a personal failure. Because the left is atomised, and the right is corporate.

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